When I went to the movies last weekend to see “Captain Marvel,” I was looking forward to watching a dynamic superheroine take over the screen of a Marvel movie for once. I was also looking forward to seeing actress Gemma Chan’s cameo as a highly-skilled member of Starforce, an elite special forces team. A member of an alien race known as Kree, Gemma was powerful and could handle a sniper with intense precision, and the best part was the fact that she had an Asian face didn’t matter at all.
Gemma, who turned into a Hollywood starlet overnight with her role as Singaporean socialite Astrid in “Crazy Rich Asians,” appeared in another movie late last year that didn’t cast her based on her race: “Mary, Queen of Scots.” I didn’t know she’d been cast, so when I saw her appear by Queen Elizabeth’s side as her closest advisor, hair as carefully coiffed and adorned as the queen’s herself, I was initially surprised. Because Mary, Queen of Scots is a period piece about Mary Stuart’s 16th-century rise (and demise), I’d expected the entire cast to be white.
As quickly as the surprise came, it went. The movie featured other characters, another lady-in-waiting and a nobleman, who were black. I found these presences refreshing, but in reading reviews afterward, I learned other people did not. I read comments like “It’s not authentic to the time” and “it was so distracting I lost sight of the plot,” arguments that were claimed to be based on historical accuracy. I wondered if these same people were distracted when they watched Tilda Swinton’s performance as a Tibetan monk in “Doctor Strange.” The characters’ races had nothing to do with Mary’s lust for the throne.
Josie Rourke, the director of “Mary, Queen of Scots,” has a background in theater, where it is common to cast people of color in roles traditionally played by white actors.
“I said to them, ‘Just so you know, I’m not doing to direct an all-white period drama. That’s not something I’m going to do,’” she said about working with film executives in an interview with Refinery29.
In interviews, Gemma Chan is now the poster child for color-blind casting, which refers to casting the best actors for the role with no bearing on race. It’s a position I’m in favor of, especially as a person of color who grew up starving for some kind of on-screen representation and greedily consumed what I could get –– Michelle Kwan dancing on ice, the Yellow Power Ranger taking down foes with artful kung fu moves.
This isn’t to say I’m not also in favor in stories about race and culture, because I am. But to see someone who looks like you thriving during the Elizabethan era or playing a major figure in U.S. history (I’m looking at you, Hamilton) is to feel that your existence has been acknowledged by the kinds of stories you grew up hearing in fairy tales or reading in history class, and it’s an empowering feeling. I’d felt it first as a kid when I watched Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” the 1997 movie known for its diverse cast –– a black Cinderella and Fairy Godmother, a Filipino prince with a white father and black mother. These characters looked like me, my parents’ friends, my neighbors. It was art imitating real life, and as a young person I wasn’t distracted –– I was comforted.
Casting actors of color in period pieces also feels like a step forward for the film industry, which has historically been dominated by white actors and white narratives, and for actors of color who are looking for something beyond the stereotypical roles, the scripts that ask them to fake a foreign accent. It’s definitely a step forward for Gemma, who was warned upon leaving drama school that a lot of the U.K.’s film content is period drama, and she’d never snag a starring role.
When I was in third grade, I dressed as a medieval princess for Halloween. I had recently visited Medieval Times, a food and entertainment experience that transports diners to the 11th century (and a popular birthday party destination for Orange County kids), and I was bewitched by the princess. She had long, honey-blond hair and a melodic voice, and everyone in the kingdom was jousting for her hand in marriage. I wanted to be her.
I arrived at school in a velvet dress that itched terribly, with a plastic crown that plastered my stick-like bangs to my forehead, but my mom allowed me to wear her red lipstick for the occasion and I felt grown-up and beautiful. I sat down and my know-it-all desk mate informed me that I couldn’t be a princess, because there were no Asian princesses in medieval Europe.
By then I had gotten used to these kinds of jabs from my classmates, but I was still crushed. Halloween was a time where you could be anything you wanted, and even then I couldn’t be seen as the type of girl who could live in a faraway castle.
“I think ‘Hamilton’ was described as ‘America then’ played by ‘America now,’” Gemma told Refinery29 about her role in “Mary, Queen of Scots.” “This is ‘England then’ portrayed by ‘England now.’ It’s about time.”
I wish I could visit my third-grade self and tell her that she could, in fact, be an Asian princess in medieval Europe. It was about time.
Taylor Weik is a writer whose passion lies in celebrating and serving the Japanese American and larger AAPI communities, with bylines in NBC Asian America, OC Weekly and more. She can be reached at [email protected]